Physics

A New Physics Theory of Life

Jeremy England

Katherine Taylor for Quanta Magazine

Jeremy England, a 31-year-old physicist at MIT, thinks he has found the underlying physics driving the origin and evolution of life.

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Why does life exist?

Popular hypotheses credit a primordial soup, a bolt of lightning and a colossal stroke of luck. But if a provocative new theory is correct, luck may have little to do with it. Instead, according to the physicist proposing the idea, the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

Plagiomnium affine

Kristian Peters

Cells from the moss Plagiomnium affine with visible chloroplasts, organelles that conduct photosynthesis by capturing sunlight.

“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” England said.

England’s theory is meant to underlie, rather than replace, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which provides a powerful description of life at the level of genes and populations. “I am certainly not saying that Darwinian ideas are wrong,” he explained. “On the contrary, I am just saying that from the perspective of the physics, you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon.”

His idea, detailed in a recent paper and further elaborated in a talk he is delivering at universities around the world, has sparked controversy among his colleagues, who see it as either tenuous or a potential breakthrough, or both.

England has taken “a very brave and very important step,” said Alexander Grosberg, a professor of physics at New York University who has followed England’s work since its early stages. The “big hope” is that he has identified the underlying physical principle driving the origin and evolution of life, Grosberg said.

“Jeremy is just about the brightest young scientist I ever came across,” said Attila Szabo, a biophysicist in the Laboratory of Chemical Physics at the National Institutes of Health who corresponded with England about his theory after meeting him at a conference. “I was struck by the originality of the ideas.”

Others, such as Eugene Shakhnovich, a professor of chemistry, chemical biology and biophysics at Harvard University, are not convinced. “Jeremy’s ideas are interesting and potentially promising, but at this point are extremely speculative, especially as applied to life phenomena,” Shakhnovich said.

England’s theoretical results are generally considered valid. It is his interpretation — that his formula represents the driving force behind a class of phenomena in nature that includes life — that remains unproven. But already, there are ideas about how to test that interpretation in the lab.

“He’s trying something radically different,” said Mara Prentiss, a professor of physics at Harvard who is contemplating such an experiment after learning about England’s work. “As an organizing lens, I think he has a fabulous idea. Right or wrong, it’s going to be very much worth the investigation.”

A computer simulation by Jeremy England and colleagues shows a system of particles confined inside a viscous fluid in which the turquoise particles are driven by an oscillating force. Over time (from top to bottom), the force triggers the formation of more bonds among the particles.

Courtesy of Jeremy England

A computer simulation by Jeremy England and colleagues shows a system of particles confined inside a viscous fluid in which the turquoise particles are driven by an oscillating force. Over time (from top to bottom), the force triggers the formation of more bonds among the particles.

At the heart of England’s idea is the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of increasing entropy or the “arrow of time.” Hot things cool down, gas diffuses through air, eggs scramble but never spontaneously unscramble; in short, energy tends to disperse or spread out as time progresses. Entropy is a measure of this tendency, quantifying how dispersed the energy is among the particles in a system, and how diffuse those particles are throughout space. It increases as a simple matter of probability: There are more ways for energy to be spread out than for it to be concentrated. Thus, as particles in a system move around and interact, they will, through sheer chance, tend to adopt configurations in which the energy is spread out. Eventually, the system arrives at a state of maximum entropy called “thermodynamic equilibrium,” in which energy is uniformly distributed. A cup of coffee and the room it sits in become the same temperature, for example. As long as the cup and the room are left alone, this process is irreversible. The coffee never spontaneously heats up again because the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against so much of the room’s energy randomly concentrating in its atoms.

Although entropy must increase over time in an isolated or “closed” system, an “open” system can keep its entropy low — that is, divide energy unevenly among its atoms — by greatly increasing the entropy of its surroundings. In his influential 1944 monograph “What Is Life?” the eminent quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger argued that this is what living things must do. A plant, for example, absorbs extremely energetic sunlight, uses it to build sugars, and ejects infrared light, a much less concentrated form of energy. The overall entropy of the universe increases during photosynthesis as the sunlight dissipates, even as the plant prevents itself from decaying by maintaining an orderly internal structure.

Life does not violate the second law of thermodynamics, but until recently, physicists were unable to use thermodynamics to explain why it should arise in the first place. In Schrödinger’s day, they could solve the equations of thermodynamics only for closed systems in equilibrium. In the 1960s, the Belgian physicist Ilya Prigogine made progress on predicting the behavior of open systems weakly driven by external energy sources (for which he won the 1977 Nobel Prize in chemistry). But the behavior of systems that are far from equilibrium, which are connected to the outside environment and strongly driven by external sources of energy, could not be predicted.

This situation changed in the late 1990s, due primarily to the work of Chris Jarzynski, now at the University of Maryland, and Gavin Crooks, now at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Jarzynski and Crooks showed that the entropy produced by a thermodynamic process, such as the cooling of a cup of coffee, corresponds to a simple ratio: the probability that the atoms will undergo that process divided by their probability of undergoing the reverse process (that is, spontaneously interacting in such a way that the coffee warms up). As entropy production increases, so does this ratio: A system’s behavior becomes more and more “irreversible.” The simple yet rigorous formula could in principle be applied to any thermodynamic process, no matter how fast or far from equilibrium. “Our understanding of far-from-equilibrium statistical mechanics greatly improved,” Grosberg said. England, who is trained in both biochemistry and physics, started his own lab at MIT two years ago and decided to apply the new knowledge of statistical physics to biology.

Using Jarzynski and Crooks’ formulation, he derived a generalization of the second law of thermodynamics that holds for systems of particles with certain characteristics: The systems are strongly driven by an external energy source such as an electromagnetic wave, and they can dump heat into a surrounding bath. This class of systems includes all living things. England then determined how such systems tend to evolve over time as they increase their irreversibility. “We can show very simply from the formula that the more likely evolutionary outcomes are going to be the ones that absorbed and dissipated more energy from the environment’s external drives on the way to getting there,” he said. The finding makes intuitive sense: Particles tend to dissipate more energy when they resonate with a driving force, or move in the direction it is pushing them, and they are more likely to move in that direction than any other at any given moment.

“This means clumps of atoms surrounded by a bath at some temperature, like the atmosphere or the ocean, should tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with the sources of mechanical, electromagnetic or chemical work in their environments,” England explained.

Self Replicating Microstructures

Courtesy of Michael Brenner/Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Self-Replicating Sphere Clusters: According to new research at Harvard, coating the surfaces of microspheres can cause them to spontaneously assemble into a chosen structure, such as a polytetrahedron (red), which then triggers nearby spheres into forming an identical structure.

Self-replication (or reproduction, in biological terms), the process that drives the evolution of life on Earth, is one such mechanism by which a system might dissipate an increasing amount of energy over time. As England put it, “A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.” In a September paper in the Journal of Chemical Physics, he reported the theoretical minimum amount of dissipation that can occur during the self-replication of RNA molecules and bacterial cells, and showed that it is very close to the actual amounts these systems dissipate when replicating. He also showed that RNA, the nucleic acid that many scientists believe served as the precursor to DNA-based life, is a particularly cheap building material. Once RNA arose, he argues, its “Darwinian takeover” was perhaps not surprising.

The chemistry of the primordial soup, random mutations, geography, catastrophic events and countless other factors have contributed to the fine details of Earth’s diverse flora and fauna. But according to England’s theory, the underlying principle driving the whole process is dissipation-driven adaptation of matter.

This principle would apply to inanimate matter as well. “It is very tempting to speculate about what phenomena in nature we can now fit under this big tent of dissipation-driven adaptive organization,” England said. “Many examples could just be right under our nose, but because we haven’t been looking for them we haven’t noticed them.”

Scientists have already observed self-replication in nonliving systems. According to new research led by Philip Marcus of the University of California, Berkeley, and reported in Physical Review Letters in August, vortices in turbulent fluids spontaneously replicate themselves by drawing energy from shear in the surrounding fluid. And in a paper appearing online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Michael Brenner, a professor of applied mathematics and physics at Harvard, and his collaborators present theoretical models and simulations of microstructures that self-replicate. These clusters of specially coated microspheres dissipate energy by roping nearby spheres into forming identical clusters. “This connects very much to what Jeremy is saying,” Brenner said.

Besides self-replication, greater structural organization is another means by which strongly driven systems ramp up their ability to dissipate energy. A plant, for example, is much better at capturing and routing solar energy through itself than an unstructured heap of carbon atoms. Thus, England argues that under certain conditions, matter will spontaneously self-organize. This tendency could account for the internal order of living things and of many inanimate structures as well. “Snowflakes, sand dunes and turbulent vortices all have in common that they are strikingly patterned structures that emerge in many-particle systems driven by some dissipative process,” he said. Condensation, wind and viscous drag are the relevant processes in these particular cases.

“He is making me think that the distinction between living and nonliving matter is not sharp,” said Carl Franck, a biological physicist at Cornell University, in an email. “I’m particularly impressed by this notion when one considers systems as small as chemical circuits involving a few biomolecules.”

Snowflake

Wilson Bentley

If a new theory is correct, the same physics it identifies as responsible for the origin of living things could explain the formation of many other patterned structures in nature. Snowflakes, sand dunes and self-replicating vortices in the protoplanetary disk may all be examples of dissipation-driven adaptation.

England’s bold idea will likely face close scrutiny in the coming years. He is currently running computer simulations to test his theory that systems of particles adapt their structures to become better at dissipating energy. The next step will be to run experiments on living systems.

Prentiss, who runs an experimental biophysics lab at Harvard, says England’s theory could be tested by comparing cells with different mutations and looking for a correlation between the amount of energy the cells dissipate and their replication rates. “One has to be careful because any mutation might do many things,” she said. “But if one kept doing many of these experiments on different systems and if [dissipation and replication success] are indeed correlated, that would suggest this is the correct organizing principle.”

Brenner said he hopes to connect England’s theory to his own microsphere constructions and determine whether the theory correctly predicts which self-replication and self-assembly processes can occur — “a fundamental question in science,” he said.

Having an overarching principle of life and evolution would give researchers a broader perspective on the emergence of structure and function in living things, many of the researchers said. “Natural selection doesn’t explain certain characteristics,” said Ard Louis, a biophysicist at Oxford University, in an email. These characteristics include a heritable change to gene expression called methylation, increases in complexity in the absence of natural selection, and certain molecular changes Louis has recently studied.

If England’s approach stands up to more testing, it could further liberate biologists from seeking a Darwinian explanation for every adaptation and allow them to think more generally in terms of dissipation-driven organization. They might find, for example, that “the reason that an organism shows characteristic X rather than Y may not be because X is more fit than Y, but because physical constraints make it easier for X to evolve than for Y to evolve,” Louis said.

“People often get stuck in thinking about individual problems,” Prentiss said.  Whether or not England’s ideas turn out to be exactly right, she said, “thinking more broadly is where many scientific breakthroughs are made.”

Emily Singer contributed reporting. This article was reprinted on ScientificAmerican.com.

Correction: This article was revised on January 22, 2014, to reflect that Ilya Prigogine won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, not physics.

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  • I believe England has discovered a door and is just beginning to step inside the room. I agree somewhat with Louis’ comments. I would call the process, Energy Force constraints.

    Imagine trying to isolate the “energy force” dissipation source impacting a lab experiment when this dissipation driver takes a direction of its own choosing without any clues as to why.
    ps….are we talking the probabilities of the dead /live cat again.

  • The theory for the origin and evolution of life as presented above and accredited to Jeremy England is not new. It was published by myself in 2009, K. Michaelian, arXiv:0907.0042 [physics.gen-ph]
    http://arxiv.org/abs/0907.0042
    and again in 2011, K. Michaelian Earth Syst. Dynam., 2, 37-51, 2011
    http://www.earth-syst-dynam.net/2/37/2011/doi:10.5194/esd-2-37-2011
    The observation that under a generalized chemical potential material self-organizes into systems which augment the dissipation of that potential should be accredited to Ilya Prigogine, “Introduction to Thermodynamics of Irreversible Processes”, John Wiley Sons Inc., 1968. I have written a number of other papers on the thermodynamic dissipation theory for the origin of life, including an explanation of homochirality. These papers are freely available by searching for my name “Karo Michaelian” on ResearchGate. I welcome Jeremy’s contribution to the effort to understand life from a thermodynamic perspective.

  • “a heritable change to gene expression called methylation, increases in complexity in the absence of natural selection”
    - I disagree with that statement. Methylation is definitely under natural selection. IMHO, methylation epigenetics is nature’s way of overcoming the long generation period of DNA replication.

  • What am I missing? Isn’t this the same as Ilya Prigogine’s “dissipative systems” and a good deal of subsequent chaos theory?

  • “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” Seriously??? it reminds me of Stanley Miller back in 1953, this sounds nice but its far away from being true. Great Mathematician Harold Morowitz after a long and exhaustive mathematical and statistical study computed that merely to create a bacterium would require more time than the universe might ever see if chance combinations of its molecules were the driving force, spontaneous emergence of single cell organism from random coupling of chemical is as Sir Freud Hoyle said “such an occurrence is about as likely as the assemblage of a 747 by a tornado whirling through a junkyard”. Thermodynamics tells us that all nonmanaged, or random, systems ALWAYS pass to a state of greater disorder. Disorder is the statistical trend of nature simply because for any given collection of atoms the number of disorderly combinations is vastly greater than the number of orderly combinations.

  • I read the paper based on the press release, and then the paper, and to be honest I found this argument really unconvincing as it depends on a fallacy:

    Essentially, the author claims that the most efficient way to increase entropy in a large system is to populate it with self-replicating long-lived subsystems. Each subsystem is a low entropy state, but is very efficient at creating entropy in the rest of the system.

    I might believe these statements for bacteria, as large organisms such as ourselves, elephants or whales are clearly irrelevant for the total entropy production of the earth.
    However, this is irrelevant, for there is no principle that says “entropy should be created as efficiently as possible”.

    Entropy should increase on average, that is a corollary of the principle that all macrostates increase. Statistical mechanics itself, with no further assumptions, has nothing to say at how entropy increases. That varies from system to system, and needs to be calculated from microscopic theory. For some systems (“semiclassical” ones) this works, but for most systems doesen’t, and certainly a system with many entropy maxima and fluctuations between them (the protein folding problem , for example), this should not be the case.

    Equations such as (6)-(8) in the paper look very much like those of the Metropolis algorithm, widely used in Montecarlos. This algorithm is guaranteed to get at the right minimum, but (and this is something stressed to all students doing computational physics) one should be careful not to confuse “montecarlo time” and “real time”: Running the montecarlo gives you the finish, but not how the system gets there.

  • Could this be the force behind emergent behavior, such as a disorganized warm ocean-atmosphere system producing a highly organized hurricane?

  • I agree with some other contents that this research direction is far from new. We ahve been working on similar directions in our group, with the cosmologist and astrobiologist Paul Davies. This is a very active area, and it’s pretty silly to focus on this one latecomer.

  • I should also point out that these kind of arguments are not really qualitatively different than what ecologist Ramon Margalef used to talk about in the 90′s.

    I’m generally upset about the pedestal this piece of press puts this relatively average article.

  • ^ Except of course that he is not showing that ‘most likely state II is proven to be self-replication’ (which is what you are implying). It simply uses eq. 8 to establish that the entropy cost of self-replication is low enough to be feasible (i.e., so that the more flexible thermodynamic bound is not violated) in a variety of systems.

    In fact eq. 8 does not have that information– it requires that we have (carefully) decided what transitions to measure a priori. (The same holds true of the usual Second Law by the way. There is always the implicit axiom that our microstates exist in some preexisting space to be counted by a partition function.)

  • Around 1950 in a lecture at UCL on biochemistry I heard of a theory proposed by a Russian to the effect that energy will be diffused at right angles to the direction of its flow. This brought to my mind convection currents, and that such processes would induce the emergence of organized forms of matter that would more effectively dissipate that energy.

  • I enjoyed reading the cogent comment of Mr. Giorgio Torrieri. It is indeed true that entropy tends to increase in a closed system as per second law of thermodynamics. However, by trapping energy in the form of information , complex adaptive systems such as life , indeed if anything retard the flow of energy into its ultimate destination of maximal entropy in our closed system,”The universe” although living matter dispenses a large part of the energy captured in its organized matter as heat, a good portion of energy is trapped in its information networks a part of its structure. ultimately, in due time this energy also joins the broader entropic ocean,the universe but later. All this is succinctly elucidated in the first chapter of the book comprehensive theory of evolution ,Thermoinfocoplexity, A new theory (Amazon 2013 ). The math in the first chapter describe a progressive , scale free ,micro state, macro state in the emergence Of complex adaptive systems.

  • Nice article!
    But there’s one little mistake: Ilya Prigogine won the nobel prize for chemistry not physics;)

  • I like this theory – something I can work on. Darwin theory of evolution always felt incomplete – like something hidden or missed. My thoughts are that both theories will compliment each other once proven. Love science.

  • I don’t see the difference.

    just restating thermodynamics, with different words

    biologists & system theorists have said this for decades;

    is a math equation different from a logical or linguistic equation?

  • If the hypothesis be verified, then Darwinism would have a major problem. For Darwinism presupposes that all of life has a single origin. The hypothesis, however, allows for, indeed makes plausible, multiple origins. But if life has multiple origins, then what explains the same molecular structure across all of life? What explains the fine-tuning of the universe for life?

  • 1. Isn’t it counterintuitive to say that the most ordered physical structures we know of come about because of a law saying disorder always increases?
    2. Isn’t saying that structures that absorb and dissipate heat in a highly efficient way will arise because they have a survival advantage a little like saying that if there is enough demand for the process, a way of spinning gold out of straw will surely be found?

  • If life is the thermodynamically preferred state, then why death? Doesn’t the transience of life and universal, permanent death directly contradict this model? Barring death, wouldn’t have people thought of something like this before?

  • Clay mineralogists and Metamorphic petrologists are unlikely to be surprised by this idea. “’It is very tempting to speculate about what phenomena in nature we can now fit under this big tent of dissipation-driven adaptive organization,’ England said. ‘Many examples could just be right under our nose, but because we haven’t been looking for them we haven’t noticed them.’” Try, just right under our feet. It will be interesting to see who picks up this ball…unfortunately, it must be someone other than me, someone actually working in a thermo lab.

  • don’t forget to add the development of sentience as another contributor to increase in order, possibly even as important as life itself.

  • This looks like a lot of hand-waving to me. Cell membranes, enzymes, DNA, ribosomes, ATP, etc etc do not just pop together because energy gets added. People like him are begging the question.

  • I agree that this appears to be yet another stab at a new law of thermodynamics to explain self-organization. Perhaps this is different and will be proven correct. As recognized by Prigogine, however, any proposed law will run into conflict with physics until physics and irreversibility can be reconciled. For anyone interested, I offer this reconciliation at http://www.evolvingcomplexity.com

  • Aren’t those some ideas from Fearful Symmetry: Is God a Geometer?, a book by Stewart Ian and Golubitsky Martin?

  • Usually the comment section is full of idiots arguing back and forth. I was expecting the usual Creationism vs. Darwin/Science/Physics/Chemistry, but these are great. Looks like chemists and scientists debating and what not… Actual sources being cited. What if the whole internet was like this?

  • with all due respect to the previous commenters who point out “similar” theories that have come out prior to this one, these early theories are all basically musings written in prose that lack the kind of mathematical rigor this scientist is applying to formulate and tackle the stated question. i don’t think anyone is surprised that people have generally pondered repeated patterns in nature and their connections to the laws of thermodynamics, etc. i’m sure darwin wasn’t the first to notice that monkeys defecate in the same manner as humans. that didn’t make these early observers of the natural world trailblazers in biology.

  • Giorgio Torrieri: “I might believe these statements for bacteria, as large organisms such as ourselves, elephants or whales are clearly irrelevant for the total entropy production of the earth.”

    Except, humans prove to excel at dispersing energy. We even go as far as to dig up clustered energy sources (carbon, oil) and burn them large scale across the planet. We even cause global warming to further increase entropy :) I’d say we are masters of energy dispersion.

  • There is nothing new here. It’s been obvious for a long time that living organisms consume more energy than non living things and the fact that they obey the laws of thermodynamics falls in to the “duh!” category. It should also be no surprise that given enough time, molecules in a closed system will organize themselves to reduce available energy. Perhaps what is new here is the added concept that they will organize in such a fashion as to reduce available energy at an ever increasing rate.

    That obviously puts humans at the top of the evolutionary food chain. We have mastered the ability to consume massive amounts of available energy and at an ever increasing rate. Of course any closed system eventually reaches maximum entropy and becomes as lifeless as the dust under our feet.

  • But if the principle can apply to lots of systems, including non-living ones (“England argues that under certain conditions, matter will spontaneously self-organize. This tendency could account for the internal order of living things and of many inanimate structures as well. ‘Snowflakes, sand dunes and turbulent vortices all have in common that they are strikingly patterned structures that emerge in many-particle systems driven by some dissipative process,’ he said.”), it’s pretty plain this fact may be true, but it’s not a distinguishing characteristic of life. In other words, there’s much more to reality than we can capture in an equation, a formula or a sentence. Physicists are always forgetting this simple fact that every poet knows.

  • so if the sun and ocean were essential for creating life (in the example mentioned by the scientist) then how did the sun and ocean get created?

  • leila is correct. It’s one thing to make a claim. It’s another to support it with equations that allow for empirical scrutiny.

  • ““He is making me think that the distinction between living and nonliving matter is not sharp,” said Carl Franck”. Brings to mind the oft debated quote in Luke 19:40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

    I am looking outside my office window now with a possible answer to a question I always ask: How do the trees know how to space their branches for optimal sun exposure for leaves yet to come. Benoit Mandelbrot said “So the goal of science is starting with a mess, and explaining it with a simple formula, a kind of dream of science.”

  • “…on the emergence of structure and function in living things, many of the researchers said.”

    Anthropology punts the ball back to physics. (Franz Boas, “Father of American Anthropology,” having been a physicist himself.)

  • Love the article.
    As far as I know, Prigogine was a chemist and not as said: “In the 1960s, the Belgian physicist Ilya Prigogine made”

  • @Josh, my thoughts exactly.

    Could Quanta magazine do a piece on how they receive such a high level of commentary? It is like being able to attend the conference at which the research is presented, but without the travel arrangements and lost wages.

    I was at a local cosmology lecture last night. It is typically attended by professional researchers, former researchers, amateur hobbyists, and lay people like myself and my son who are there just because we’re fascinated by the topic. Some of the best questions were from old-timers who spent a career on the topic but no longer actively involved, and some were from pre-teen kids.

    A great Q&A session is just as helpful in allowing me to fully appreciate the subject matter as the presentation itself.

    Thanks also to the commentators who provided references. I just added a half dozen quality articles on this topic to my reading list.

    Back to topic, does this theory depend on high energy gradients? If so, I wonder, given that we have still have regions of earth immersed in extreme energy gradients, then as Daniel Guerriere says: “But if life has multiple origins, then what explains the same molecular structure across all of life? ”

    I also wonder what is the connection or reliance if any between these dissipative systems theories and the availability of negentropy.

  • I think the reason for high quality comments is due to the title of the article, some articles titled to attract users regardless of their background and aim at quantity rather than quality and background of readers, its obvious common and uninterested individuals won’t come here to discuss physics theory and thermodynamics or such specialized issues, I hope to see such articles even more

  • Just to add another source for those interested, this sounds similar to the ideas discussed in the book “What is Life?: How Chemistry becomes Biology” by Addy Pross.

  • Leila please read the books “into the cool ” by Schneider etal, “information theory of evolution by John Avery ,2003 ,also 2012 and my own book ” a comprehensive theory of evolution 2013 ” before making a not true statement that the previous authors had not have mathematical treatment or rigor of mr. England . Both you and mr. England benefit by reading the writing of these eminent scholars(present author excepted) which are mathematically truly rigorous. When and if this necessary reading is done it will become clear that the encounter of sun,s photons and matter in converting energy to information inbeded in the structure of molecules or more complex matter,life, John Avery shows with rigorous math that at 298.15 kelvin(room temperature) 1 jule will produce 56.157 bits of informatin(entropy change). In my book,( a comprehensive theory of evolution) on page45 , chapter one the concept of retardation of flow of entropy thru living matter in the form of captured Gibbs free energy is rigorously and mathematically presented . Therein the confusion regarding whether life increases or decreases entropy flow has been clarified with the conclusion that life retards the flow of energy into entropy universe. This issue has been confusing to many scientists including Mr. england but was resolved after detail personal communication with John Avery and its math and assumptions are clearly discussed in the comprehensive theory of evolution, ( Thermoinfocomplexity ) book, chater one. The debate is not about priority of credit (who cares, we will all join the ocean of universal entropy soon) . The debate is about the truth of physical evolution.

  • Ok, perhaps he was being glib but if “shining light” on a rock were enough to make a plant, Mercury and Venus should be teeming with life. Methinks that Mars has been there long enough to have at least grown some moss–according to the theory. It’s more likely that he wants to believe something and this theory will simply serve as his very own “cosmological constant.”

  • This is a very amazing discovery if proven true.

    I am a Ph.D. student in physics. I just wanted to say that what he proposes does not run into any conflict with the existing law of thermodynamics. The existing law of thermodynamics only applies to systems in equilibrium that many people are familiar with (increases in disorder (entropy) etc). They all have one fundamental assumption: that the system is already in equilibrium. Non-equilibrium systems are not very understood at all. Non-equilibrium statistical mechanics is a huge open question in physics. Its why we don’t understand every day things such as underwater bubble formation. Because such phenomenon can only happen under non-equilibrium conditions.

    The Earth is certainly not an equilibrium system, we take in energy from the sun the day and emit our entropy at night to the emptiness of space. If this proves to be correct it will be a huge in the step of understanding non-equilibrium systems.

  • This made me think of Into the Cool as some others have noted but there are probably a number of others.

    However, I think there is a missing piece in these theories- information. Living systems accumulate and preserve information. Information allows reproduction, evolution, and even metabolism.

  • I agree with the many responders that these ideas are not new at all (such as I can tell), including to this systems ecologist. Indeed Ecologist(s) Ramon Margalef discussed this and so did Howard Odum in a way that is far more satisfying to me (although perhaps not as elegantly written as some). Life does not dissipate energy just to do that; it is a necessary requirement for building structure, capturing more energy than that required for maintaining that energy and for energy acquisition, and propelling one’s genes into the future. (“Evolution is an existential game, the object of which is to keep playing”: Ecologist L B Slobodkin). Hurricanes too feed on the free energy of warm water to maintain structure which can capture more energy in a positive feedback. These are very old ideas. There continues to be confusion between mathematical and scientific rigor. They are (generally) different issues. Newton and Maxwell were lucky: The rest of us have to struggle with the more mathematically recalictrant leftovers.

  • Read: Walter M. Elsasser, Reflections on a Theory of Organisms.
    After reading it, you will reconsider your premises. The echo-chamber of science produces many formal proofs, but not yet the theory of life.

  • For those of you who doubt that Dr. England has produced something new, please read his recent publication in J. Chem. Physics:

    http://www.englandlab.com/uploads/7/8/0/3/7803054/2013jcpsrep.pdf

    If you bother to read this publication in a well regarded journal, you will see that he has offered a valuable framework for conducting future research about thermodynamic constraints on biological processes. This doesn’t mean, of course, that other authors haven’t offered similar thoughts in a less formal way.

  • M Mahin -

    Pretty much agree.

    I think this needs to be looked at as a sort of companion piece to Tegmark’s Consciousness as a state of matter

    http://arxiv.org/abs/1401.1219

    So these are in some ways very different but I think there is a connection.

    Tegmark tries to derive consciousness from physics as this tries to derive life from physics. Tegmark, however, skips life in his states of matter going pretty much from solid, liquid, gas to computation.

    In fact, I think there is very much a direct connection. Consciousness arises from life as an advanced form of information processing that first arose in life – an evolutionary development from more primitive life processes.

    The missing factor in both is information. But there seems to be some relationship between information and energy in that as more advanced organisms are more intelligent – can process more information, have more throughput, and hold more information – they also dissipate more energy.

  • This idea is not new. Perhaps the equations shed some new light and allow for empirical predictions. See the following book: Brooks and Wiley, Evolution as Entropy, U Chicago Press (1986, 2nd edition 1988)

  • On the face of it this would seem to be a simplistic mathematization without ecological phenomenological grounding. “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” Well not quite but living systems do produce more entropy, as do complex thermodynamic systems in general. I discuss naturalistic teleology in the Introduction to this book, in the section, “Turing Gaia” : http://www.amazon.com/Foray-into-Worlds-Animals-Humans/dp/0816659001/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1390529955&sr=1-1&keywords=von+uexkull There are some mistakes in the article, e.g., the conflation of “closed” and “isolated” systems. Eric Schnedier and I even discussed life as primarily a metabolic and thermodynamic system, stabilized by genetics, at MIT, at the Joseph Keenan conference organized by Hatsopoulos. There are three stages of a scientific theory. 1) You are dead wrong, 2) You are right but it’s trivial, 3) You are right and it’s important and we knew it all along. Welcome to stage three haha If you are really interested in this subject, please read Into the Cool; Eric D. Schneider collects great data about how more complex ecosystems (e.g., rainforests are better energy dissipators than old growth fir forests which are in turn better dissipators of energy than newly planted forests, grasslands better than cities and so on); we also have a chapter on the origins of life. Global warming can be looked at as literal biospheric dysfunction as heat remains closer to the complex system’s surface, impairing its function. And if you are interested in naturalistic teleology, I discuss it in detail in several places in http://www.amazon.com/dp/081668135X . Notice also this paper, “Life as a Manifestation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics,” which precedes England’s would-be pride of place in this area by some years: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0895717794901880. What is different about Schneider’s work is the careful application of nonequilibrium thermodynamics to living systems.

  • A very interesting and exciting idea of energy dissipation. Its good to see the definitions of energy transfer from external to internal and vice-versa, getting clearer. Looking forward for this experiment.

  • These mathmateical rules for all or any potential life are great but they only seem to apply to one tiny planet in one tiny galaxy. However, if the laws of physics are truly universal as most of us believe to be the case, why then are there no other life forms as of yet discovered except on earth? Wouldn’t this spontenaiety theory create life in abundance around the universe, the mathmateical probabilites would have to be all aligned somewhere just like they have been here on earth. How can this theory hold true if it does not apply outside of our great little planet?

  • “We can show very simply from the formula that the more likely evolutionary outcomes are going to be the ones that absorbed and dissipated more energy from the environment’s external drives on the way to getting there”

    This, IMO, is the core of why all this is a completely theoretical exercise and not (as it has been reported elsewhere) “proof that life is inevitable” or even “as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill”. In a non-evolutionary system, there is no selective pressure for the “best” dissipation outcome that they have calculated. The system can simply continue to heat up, like Venus, until it reaches its own equilibrium without life. Even if simple self-replicating molecules form, they may develop into life merely by the fact that they reproduce and start to evolve, but the fact that they disperse energy from the planet better does not help them “outcompete” other molecules on the planet.

  • Like Mr. Mahin states it might be ages till they find ‘The’ reason for the origin of life and the complexity of DNAs, but what I love about this article is that it opens up the thought that origin of life is not just a random and lucky lighting strike in the primordial soup. Whether this theory proves itself accurate(wholly or partly) remains to be seen, least it has opened up a line of thought which is scientifically valid rather than depending on sheer chance.

    And so enjoyed the comment section! :)

  • One comment that comes back is: if life has several origins, what explains the common molecular foundation of all currently known life?
    One answer to this could be: perhaps there is no other choice… or at least not one that can adequately compete. I have the feeling that we sometimes tend to forget that the “dominance of the best replicator” is unescapeably fundamental, not a law we invent to explain observations but a logical consequence of limited resources.

  • I am interested in the ability of archaic life and it’s ability to use calcite to redistribute energy. The cases of extremeophiles in both caves and deep ocean environments as well as in the fossil record show that calcite has been used for numerous uses by early life forms.The tendency of many calcite salts to be easily mutable into more or less energy conservative forms is unique due to the ability of calcite to be able to take over 500 crystal forms. The helical forms are very interesting too because they could perhaps have a role in the formation of our helical genetic bases. This is not my area of study but it has become very interesting in light of this research and I would like to hear any ideas on this from any who may have related information.

  • I may be missing something here–I’m sure that I’m missing a lot of things here–but this sounds like good old-fashioned spontaeneous generation. And if this happens, then why isn’t it happening now? Or is it? Why isn’t this the normal way for new life-forms to appear here?

    Still, interesting.

  • I’m surprised that in all this discussion there was not one instance of the word that for centuries has demonstrated these very principles: crystallization. The formation of a crystal involves gaining local order at the expense of surrounding disorder.

    The secret with life is not this process, because without the producer of the gain benefiting from the imbalance, there can be no selection for improvements, and reversibility is unavoidable. The critical step in establishing life was the formation of a shell between inside and outside, so the inside could capture the benefits of the process while expelling the waste, and could accumulate the raw materials without the risk of losing them to the disorder. Everything prior to that step was chemistry; everything after that step was biology.

  • If this theory is true that life evolves to disperse energy more efficiently, then a glass of pond water or sea water should dissipate energy and reach thermodynamic equilibrium more efficiently and quickly than a glass of distilled water, because the former contains life.

    Does that make sense?

    I wonder if that is a measurable test that would constitute proof of England’s theory.

  • “One comment that comes back is: if life has several origins, what explains the common molecular foundation of all currently known life?”

    One answer could be extinctions. Those species alive today represent a miniscule fraction of those that have lived.

    Why isn’t it happening today? I’ll leave that one to better brains.

  • Just to say that the sentence about methlylation is not from me. Although methylation is a fascinating and complex epigentic phenomenon, I think that the propensity for methylation can be under selection. So it is not a good example of something that natural selection can’t explain.

    That being said, it is an interesting example of how heredity is more complex than the old textbook pictures.

  • hooray for Josh’s comment: the first comments section I’ve seen in years that is on-topic all the way thru, regardless of your opinion about it’s correctness or currency..

  • Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense to me. A simple example comes to mind- the formation of ice crystals with the consequential release of energy.

  • If life can be formed by continually putting energy into a system then Mercury & Venus should have more life on it than the earth.

  • Hat’s off to the author; this was one of the most interesting things I’ve read online in a long time – including the complete thread of comments, which on the whole pays fine respect to constructive debate and the scientific method. I wish I had something smart to contribute, but all I can give is my gratitude.

  • I met Prigogine at a physics conference in 1977. I don’t think he’d have minded if someone said he worked on physics problems. That said, I’m not convinced that Harold Morowitz’s calculation about spontaneous emergence of a bacterium (if he actually did such a calculation) has much bearing on the paper discussed here, and BTW, Harold was a biophysicist who as I recall—but cannot confirm—received the first biophysics PhD. He would probably not agree with the characterization of himself as a great mathematician. I’m guessing what’s new in England’s work is that he differs with previous authors about reaction rates. He probably does not claim that the idea that energy flowing through a system tends to organize it, a phrase I heard from Morowitz and Prigogine independently, is original to him.

  • This is a nice job of quantifying the direction and flow rates of entropy generation in far-from-equilibrium systems. That’s what much of physics is about- quantizing physical behavior so that we can use our best mathematical tools to predict the behavior of those systems in time.

    Interesting (to me) is that the principal that systems evolve to maximize the rate of entropy production was also foreshadowed in a recent book published by a Duke engineering professor: Adrian Bejan; “Design in Nature”; anchorbooks (2012).
    He terms this principle the “constructal law”, and generalizes to any system in which “flow” is present…heat flow, mass flow, information flow and also, presumably, the flow of entropy.

  • The observed scale invariance in atmosphere and ocean can be linked to entropy production, via the thermodynamic formalism of statistical multifractality. Appealing to the molecular dynamical emergence of organized fluid flow from a randomized molecular population (Alder & Wainwright, Phys Rev A, 1, 18-21 [1970]) leads to the idea that natural selection is a property inherent in molecular populations, and therefore operates on all scales (Griffith et al., Accounts of Chemical Research, 45, 2106-2113 [2012]). The most energetic molecules have negative entropy and produce organization, while the larger number closer to average are responsible for dissipation and allow the maintenance of an operational temperature in non-equilibrium systems. For a definitive account of atmospheric scale invariance, see “The Weather and Climate: Emergent Laws and Multifractal Cascades”, Lovejoy & Schertzer, 2013, CUP, ISBN-13: 9781107018983. Weather and climate are, and must have been in the Archaean, prime agents of natural selection.

  • Much of this reminds me of some of the implications of Stephen Wolfram’s reproducing pattern theory expounded in “A New Kind of Science.” Do you see any connection?

  • A quote in the opening paragraph of Natalie’s article really hit me: “…the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and ‘should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill’.”

    I’m a philosopher and not a physicist or chemist, so most of England’s theorizing is beyond me. However, I get the gist of his theory and, as others have noted, it stimulates thinking.
    In our philosophy discussion group (an Ayn Rand group), we’ve been debating whether consciousness is material or non-material. I say that nothing exists but matter, which includes electro-magnetic fields, light waves, etc.. Consciousness is not something which emanates from the electro-chemical activity of the brain, but rather, consciousness IS this electro-chemical activity.
    Matter, after billions of years of evolution, becoming aware of itself in the complexity of the human brain is “as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”
    To those concerned about free will, I say this: in the complex electro-chemical activity of the human brain, matter reaches such a degree of complexity that it escapes being determined or predictable. The essence of freedom is its unpredictability–the unknowability of its future state. (For a fine discussion of the brain’s activity and free will, see E.O. Wilson, “On Human Nature, Chp. 4, “Emergence,” where Wilson discusses the brain’s “schemata” and “feed-back loops.” )

  • I find simple thermodynamic theories of life rather disappointing. They appear like a naive explanation of living things by saying that they are not really living, just being similar to tornados, monsunes, the Great Spot on Jupiter, or computers keeping low entropy and dissipating heat. But the fact that some systems conform well to certain laws can hardly explain the existence of such systems or their nature. This is a kind of manipulation, because we had been surprised by seeing those things and could not have predicted their existence.

    The problem with such theories may be that the most likely random transformation of an ordered system is usually its destruction. As regards stones rolling downhill, they are soon stopped, or just remain there finding no path down, or their path is uninteresting.

    Some theories say that life must exist because carbon atoms tend to form complex molecules. We may speculate that rational and intelligent systems must spontaneously appear throughout the Universe just because the best use of the laws of logic gives the best chance of persistence. Is it true, or are we still missing some very deep key points?

  • Does this indeed “liberate biologists from seeking a Darwinian explanation for every adaptation” or is it rather a new way to think of fitness? And it is interesting to think of it in terms of the ubiquity of convergent evolution to similar pressures, as well as possible ramifications for xenobiology.

  • I’ve been looking at England’s theory. I haven’t quite figured out whether it’s completely trivial or actually saying something useful. The equation appears to be correct though. One way of interpreting it is just that the entropy generated by creating molecule(s) B from molecule(s) A, minus the entropy removed by the reverse reaction B to A, must be greater than or equal to the entropy from releasing the appropriate amount of free energy into the heat bath at the current temperature. That’s pretty much a no-brainer, since no reaction can be greater than 100% efficient. (Note, however, that the forward and reverse reaction rates are in general not the same except at equilibrium. The equation is true even very far from equilibrium.)

    Now, whether you can go from that equation to his broader claims that more efficient reactions out-compete less efficient reactions in the Darwinian sense, is I think less clear. It appears to require additional assumptions, which he doesn’t really make explicit. It may be true, but it’s not as obvious.

    I would thank previous commenters for their many excellent references. The Michaelian paper seems to be mainly a historical survey of previous work, and doesn’t contain any equations. I haven’t had time to read most of the others yet.

    John Avery’s Information Theory and Evolution (2nd ed. 2012) is a good solid introduction to this area of inquiry. One nice nugget of wisdom from it is that the natural unit of temperature is “energy per bit of entropy”. This means that the unit of England’s $\beta=1/T$ is “bits of entropy per unit of energy”. The equation is easier to understand dimensionally that way.

  • Thanks for this! With all due respect to some of the forerunners I have had time to check and some comments here of “what is new”, this is quantitative work derived directly from earlier work on non-equilibrium thermodynamics (NET).

    And it ties nicely in with Russell et al work on alkaline hydrothermal systems and how such disequilibrium system as life arises out of them due to NET. However, they argue convincingly (to me) that the metabolic bottleneck isn’t disequilibrium and dissipation as such, but the increased dissipation that comes from positive feedback in “Atwood engines” of dissipating free energy (disequilibrium) flows (free energy conversion, FEC, engines).

    More precisely, the simplest such FEC engine of electron bifurcating metal atoms that we still see in the core enzymes of the metabolic UCA. ["Turnstiles and bifurcators: The disequilibrium converting engines that put metabolism on the road", Branscomb and Russell, Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) - Bioenergetics, Volume 1827, Issue 6, June 2013, Page 806.]

    The thermodynamics of replicators may or may not supplement the metabolic achievement, but the result favoring RNA primacy is suggestive so far.

    And here I always claimed that entropy has nothing to do with life as such, since the entropy produced by evolution during selection at each generation is miniscule compared to the entropy produced during organism growth. And if snow flakes can grow, so can cells. But England turns that around to face me. =D

  • @Diego, Travis, Glen: “Thermodynamics tells us that all nonmanaged, or random, systems ALWAYS pass to a state of greater disorder.” “maximize the rate of entropy production”.

    It is exactly the opposite that people all the way back to Boltzmann has noted. Nitpick: In very constrained systems when entropy increases order does too. It is facile, but not correct, to say that entropy = disorder.

    If you read England’s talk, he derives from the 2nd law that “driven stochastic evolution” of systems will necessitate terms (system parts) of order, durability, dissipation and fluctuation. [slide 47] The kicker is that if you have low activation barriers (so not far from equilibrium) you favor disorganized states. But if not, you favor increased dissipation and, with the exception of freak fluctuation events, that is achieved by order and durability. Without even having replication or selection getting into play! [slide 48]

    Biological evolution just happens to be a most effective process, as he also discuss. He shows actual experiments that seems to test his hypothesis too (“resonant adaptation”).

  • @Giorgio Torrieri: I have to read the paper, but in his talk England doesn’t seem to claim that is the only way. [And see IL's comment.] Slide 51:

    “No doubt, self-replication is a way to make this work because discrete exponential growth reliably causes lots of dissipation

    But it seems like we expect to see organization that is ‘adapted’ from an energetic standpoint emerge on its own, even without heredity and selection, and just from underlying Newtonian/Hamiltonian mechanics”.

  • @Beatrice: Evolution has been well tested for 150+ years. It is still the reigning contender. England may complement the current theory, in the same way genetics did.

    @Daniel Guerriere: It is well known for 150+ years that Darwin never “presupposed” anything and explicitly stated that possibly there were many, or one, original ancestor.

    But FWIW Theobald showed from the replication process that there were only one universal ancestor population in our case, with a likelihood > 10^2000 against many UCAs. (Nature 2010). It is the best observation in all of science!

    Note that protocells could still originate multiply times, since early evolution was likely communal. It was the surviving replication process that bottlenecked this, either by allowing lineages to diverge or by killing of alternate lineages. This is long known. (See Joyce et al.)

    @FrankNorman, M Mahin: “do not just pop together because energy gets added.”

    More precisely, becase free energy (disequilibrium) gets added. Yes, the evolutionary seed may, see Prigogine and Russell et al verification in a previous comment of mine. England assumes evolution is one way to realize his theory.

  • The author writes:

    ‘Eventually, the system arrives at a state of maximum entropy called “thermodynamic equilibrium,” in which energy is uniformly distributed.’

    One of the most pervasive and difficult to displace misconceptions about Entropy is that the distribution of energy in a system at thermodynamic equilibrium is a uniform distribution. It is not: the distribution is the Boltzmann distribution, and follows exp(-kE). It is a very easy trap to fall into, because it seems obvious, simple, and easy to understand: but it’s not what happens in reality.

  • While England’s research may point the way to specific mechanisms for increasing order in disordered systems and may thus play some upstream role in the reproduction of macro-molecules, it doesn’t address the critical role of “functional” information in both the origin of life and its continued enrichment through evolution. By functional information I mean something more than just repeated patterns of inorganic or organic molecules, but rather patterned information in one component of a living system that is homologous to patterns in one or more other components in the system. This type of information is the basis for message transmission and feedback loops between components of a living system and thus the synchronization of all of the subsystems that comprise it. The classic (oversimplified) example is

    … Transcription factors–>DNA–>RNA Polymerase–>Spliceosomes–>mRNA–>Nucleotide triplets–>RibosomestRNAAmino Acids–>Polypeptides–>Folded Proteins/Enzymes–>Transcription factors …

    That all of these subsystems somehow evolved in tandem and have highly coordinated functions in the metabolism and reproduction of living organisms is truly astounding. IMHO this type of information system depends on much more than the principles of thermodynamics and is the great unexplained mystery of Biology. While England’s work may be relevant to this at some level, I don’t believe that it begins to explain this central problem.

  • The term “RibosomestRNAAmino Acids” in my previous post should read “Ribosomes–>tRNA–>Amino Acids”

  • England’s notion puts Darwinian takeover, chaos theory, Jarzynski and Crooks’ formulation, Nobel Laurate Ilya Prigogine’s behavior of open systems, Boltzmann probabiliy all together.
    We have to test and gather data and to run experiments on living systems to support to understand life from a themodynamic perspective.

  • Interesting stuff, but not biology.

    Biology, life, is not just replicating matter. Rather it is replicating coded information.
    As long as information is not included, this is merely physics devoid of any biology, and irrelevant to solving the origin of biological systems.
    This is in no respect whatsoever a precursor of a living system. Science, in the first place biology, has to deal with the information content of biosystems. Denying or ignoring that life is based on information, is denying or ignoring science facts.

    Pluri

  • Re: “..it [group of atoms] will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy.”
    Could the above read: Groups of atoms when steadily absorbing energy from an external source at a more rapid rate than their environment (e.g. an immersing fluid) will be restructured or reorganized by that energy in a manner that will dissipate the energy as heat to their immersing fluid (or intimately contacting substance) at a higher rate than their original structure allowed.
    RE: “Scientists have already observed self-replication in nonliving systems.”
    Given that many now question the meaning of “self” in humans, let alone animals or inanimate things, would it not be prudent to delete “self-“ from “self-replication”?

  • In weak criticism of Granite Sentry, you state ” . . . there’s much more to reality than we can capture in an equation, a formula or a sentence. Physicists are always forgetting this simple fact that every poet knows.” I demur, to the extent that unexplained does not mean unexplainable. You seem to be saying that knowledge and its interpretation cannot advance past what we now know and accept. I suggest that Dr. England’s scientific progeny will, perhaps only a few tens of years from now, smile indulgently at your statement.

  • It would seem that the same logic supporting the assertion that life occurs spontaneously as a result of the thermodynamic imperative of entropy would mean that at least some “living” things should be immortal. Or, put another way, what is the thermodynamic causation for death of the living things that successfully contribute to entropy?

  • In defense of my work, and that of many others, and particularly of my paper entitled “Thermodynamic Dissipation Theory for the Origin of Life” (arXiv:0907.0042[physics.gen-ph]2009; Earth Syst. Dynam., 2, 37-51, 2011), I would have to disagree strongly with the comment of Howard A. Landman (Jan. 27, 2:03) that my paper is “mainly a historical survey of previous work”. The introduction is certainly such, as should be the case in all papers, but if one bothers to read the remaining 8 sections, one would discover that it presents a detailed theory for the origin and early stages of the evolution of life as governed by the general non-equilibrium thermodynamic principle of structuring driven by dissipation. The paper first presents an explanation for the spontaneous formation of dissipative structures under a generalized thermodynamic potential, referring the reader to the original ideas of Boltzmann and rigorous demonstrations which go back to the 1930´s through to the 1960´s with the work of Lars Onsager and Ilya Prigogine and their groups. England has provided a tentative statistical mechanics version of dissipative structuring, but a statistical version of a general principle concerning entropy production rates, rather than entropy, is what is really needed. Here there are earlier statistical results which do consider entropy production rates, e.g. R. Dewar, J. Phys. A, 36, 631-641, 2003, although the verdict is still out on the validity of these results.
    My paper then goes on to give empirical evidence for increases in the entropy production of the biosphere and its components over time in its interaction with the solar environment and relates this to Onsager’s principle (Onsager, Phys. Rev., 37, 405–426, 1931) of coupling of irreversible processes when this coupling augments the global entropy production (see also Morel and Fleck, J. Theor. Biol., 136, 171–175, 1989 and K. Michaelian, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 16, 2629-2645, 2012). I provide a physical explanation for the proliferation of RNA and DNA and other pigments in the Archean environment using a non-linear non-equilibrium thermodynamic result, similar to what Prigogine derived for a product catalyst in autocatalytic chemical reactions (see K. Michaelian, J. Phys. Conf. Series 12/2013; 475:012010 and J. Theor. Biol., 237, 323-335, 2005 if you must see equations Howard Landman … I hope, however, that you don’t rest relevance from “On the Origin of Species” because of its lack of equations!).
    Later in the paper, I provide a mechanism for enzyme-less replication of RNA/DNA based on the dissipation of UV photons of around 260 nm, where RNA and DNA absorb and dissipate efficiently, on a gradually cooling sea surface at a temperature slightly below the denaturing temperature of strands of RNA/DNA ~70-80°C (a process similar to PCR which I call UVTAR — UltraViolet and Temperature Assisted Replication). My article also suggests a mechanism for the homochirality of RNA/DNA based on asymmetric (morning-afternoon) circularly polarized photon-induced denaturing of these molecules (see also K. Michaelian, Nature Precedings (2010) ) and suggests how information became encoded in RNA/DNA through the affinity of the aromatic amino-acids to their DNA anti-codons, suggesting that these amino-acids may have acted as antenna molecules to augment RNA/DNA – amino acid complex photon dissipation). Any theory purporting to describe the origin of life must necessarily explain homochirality and information accumulation. My student Norberto Santillan and I have obtained preliminary experimental evidence for the first part of the enzyme-less replication, the UVTAR mechanism suggested above, that of photon induced denaturing (see K. Michaelian and N. Santillan, “Fundamentos Termodinámicos del Origen de la Vida”, available on ResearchGate).
    With Oliver Manuel, we have shown how the thermodynamic dissipation theory for the origin of life places constraints on the solar model (K. Michaelian and O. Manuel, J. Mod. Phys, 2, 6A, 587-594, 2011). With Alex Simeonov we have shown how dissipative pigments have appeared over the evolutionary history of life following the evolution of the solar spectrum at Earth’s surface (A. Simeonov and K. Michaelian, to be available shortly from ResearchGate). Finally, the example of population dynamics given in England’s paper was treated by myself under a non-equilibrium thermodynamic formalism in 2005 (K. Michaelian, J. Theor. Biol., 237, 323-335, 2005.). Here, a plausible thermodynamic fitness function for selection was shown to be the ratio of global dissipation of the system over the change of entropy of the system, i.e. diS/dt/|deS/dt – diS/dt|, which selects highly dissipating systems with the stability of the stationary state. It is important to remark here that on the real time scales of biosphere evolution it is the whole system, biotic plus coupled abiotic irreversible processes, that is being thermodynamically selected, not the individual living entities. With Vasthi Alonso we have studied the thermodynamic stability of such systems under perturbation (V. Alonso and K. Michaelian, J. Mod. Phys, 2, 6A, 627-635, 2011).
    Finally, many of my students have contributed importantly to this work on the thermodynamic dissipation theory for the origin and evolution of life. Some of the most related thesis that should be mentioned are by Julian González, Vasthi Alonso, Noemi Hernández, Patrcia Jacome, Jessi Gatica, and Norberto Santillan. These thesis can be accessed directly from the central library at the UNAM.
    As you can see, we have an extensive research program on this subject involving many researchers which goes back at least 12 years. That we present merely “a historical survey of previous works” on dissipative structures is a completely unfair caricature of our work. While we are on the subject, as other contributors to these comments have pointed out, there is a long list of workers to whom credit should be given with respect to the association of life with dissipation and thermodynamics. Some of the most important works that come to mind (I’m sure I am forgetting others) are Boltzmann, Onsager, Prigogine, Nicolis, Babloyanz, Wicken, Zotin, Ulanowicz, Lloyd, Pagels, Swenson, Morel, Fleck, Kay, Schneider, Dewar. The references to these works can be found in our articles or by doing a Google search.
    The journalistic report in Quanta on the paper of England has given public exposure to these ideas and that is a good thing. Papers of this kind are usually rejected by the traditional origin of life journals, principally because of a general lack of appreciation for non-equilibrium thermodynamics. That is now starting to change and we must be grateful for the publicity, but, at the same time, it is important to be fair in attributing credit where credit is due. It represents, after all, many years of hard work performed by many generations of scientists throughout the world on this subject.

  • Doc:

    While I agree that just because a phenomenon is currently unexplainable doesn’t mean it that it always will be, I would hope that Dr. England’s scientific progeny will hold their indulgent smiles until the solution is actually in the bag. We can never know in advance whether “hard problems” will ultimately be explainable. This is example of what Alan Turing called the “halting problem”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halting_problem

    It is not unreasonable therefore to consider the possibility that a given problem cannot be solved, or can only be solved after paradigm shifts of the sorts that we saw with the advent of relativity and quantum mechanics. My sense of Dr. England’s discovery is that it is well within the comfort zone of the current biological paradigm for life’s origin, as resulting from a long series of physio-chemical reactions slowly occurring over billions of years (hence all the encomium in response to his finding). This has been the consensus of many of the greatest scientific minds since the emergence of the “Modern Evolutionary Synthesis” in the first half of the 20th century, and which was apparently confirmed in 1953 with the discovery of the structure of DNA. However the discoveries of molecular biology over the succeeding 60 years have not been kind to this synthesis, and in the consensus of many others it is in a shambles (this statement may strike some as outlandish, but I’m afraid I’ll have to leave it to our readers’ curiosities to validate or disprove it for themselves). Suffice it to say IMHO that a paradigm shift in this area will probably require the death of the current generation of evolutionary biologists (see Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”) and the rise of their scientific progeny, who will not likely remember Dr. England as the next Charles Darwin, if they remember him at all.

  • It would interest me, how does the work of Jeremy English tie up with the following:
    Carl Woese published in 2004 in the journal „Microbiology and Molecular Review“ an article „A new biology for a new century“. There he described 3 phases of the evolution: predarwinian, Darwinian and postdarwinian era.
    We have here the so-called Woesian revolution (changed perspectives of the origin of the eukaryotes) and the discovery of Dimitar Sasselov, professor for astronomy at Harvard Univ. who is the director of the multidisciplinary „Harvard Origins of Life Initiative“.

  • Mr Seeley:

    I am a curious reader and follower of science, but not a scientist. My training is in social science, namely in the formulation and assessments of urban policies, and I stay away from disciplines I’m not qualified to comment on. What I can do, however, is see and evaluate macro positions assumed by recent knowledge, as such positions are subsumed by all phases of inquiry. Your paragraphs are well received and enjoyed, but I submit that the long history of the pursuit of knowledge is, a bit like the stock market, upward, and builds (as Isaac Newton offered) upon the shoulders of giants.

    It is immense fun for me to read the proponents of one position or another in fields I haven’t studied since sophomore biochemistry, and that was, indeed, a long time ago. Judging, however, from the great advances in virtually every field (my own notwithstanding), It’s pretty difficult to admit of very many insoluble problems.

    Additionally, I hardly think Dr. England would describe himself as earth-shaking as Darwin. Who is. As for me, I side with Edward O. Wilson’s famous ant, encased in lucite with a banner protruding, which says, “Onward and Upward!”

  • I did not see gravity mentioned in the above comments, so I’ll ask this. What is gravity’s effect upon the systems described by Jeremy England? Is the life-spawning “heat bath” that Jeremy describes most often created in a gravity well? Is there evidence that any other attractive forces encourage self-organization? Some physicists might be able to quickly tell me whether organized atomic and sub-atomic structures dissipate energy more readily than would a sea of their smallest components?

  • Great fan fiction!

    PS: “The reason that an organism shows characteristic X rather than Y may not be because X is more fit than Y, but because physical constraints make it easier for X to evolve than for Y to evolve.”

    I wonder what Louis’ definition of fitness is. Because my definition of fitness includes thriving better under physical constraints, and thus evolving easier under physical constraints.

  • The description of the process and the mathematics associated with it is a bit too general to provide insight into the detailed processes of life. Protists like Euglena and Volvox are more prolific and better at harnessing vast amounts of energy near the ocean’s surface through photosynthesis, so why go to all of the trouble to eventually make itself into a something like a tree? I rather think that the process is driven by other forces more compelling than simply to “dissipate energy”, or even competition with other individuals for energy from the same or even a different source. Is there an expression for the maximum efficiency of such a system, or does the environment impose its own or other limitations? Why would efficiency (such as in the thermodynamic sense) be the ultimate goal of life? It doesn’t even explain the reason for the near infinite variety of snowflakes, does it really?

    Mathematics is just another symbolic language that human beings have created to communicate with each other. It is entirely possible to scribble out as many kinds of silly ideas using math as it is in any other human language. More’s the pity, many people can’t tell the difference, in any language. But by all means, keep trying.

  • Daniel Guerriere wonders:

    “If the hypothesis be verified, then Darwinism would have a major problem. For Darwinism presupposes that all of life has a single origin. The hypothesis, however, allows for, indeed makes plausible, multiple origins. But if life has multiple origins, then what explains the same molecular structure across all of life? ”

    Well wonder no more, here is an explanation. One minor correction: Darwin never presupposed that all of life had a single origin, that came later under what was called neoDarwinism. An explanation for the biological unities is that horizontal gene transfer is the agency that maintains unity. As is described in papers 1, 9, and 15 at:
    http://www.vme.net/hgt/

    and an attempt to describe this to an interested lay audience at:

    http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2005/08/the_last_univer.html

  • What a great article, and a powerful and important idea. The study of this idea is long overdue.

    It strikes me that it is a variant on the ideas of H. T. Odum as described by his former student Charles Hall (“Maximum Power: The Ideas and Applications of H. T. Odum”, Charles A. S. Hall, Ed., University Press of Colorado, 1995). Odum came to believe that all ecosystems self-organized to use (consume or dissipate) energy at a maximum rate. In Darwinian terms, the organism that garners the largest share of the available flow of energy will out-compete the others at the same trophic level, so those mutations that enable higher rates of consumption of energy, in every generation, and at every trophic level, have competitive advantage. Ultimately, as the ecosystem approaches a stationary state far from equilibrium (one of Prigogne’s dissipative structures) it reaches a state of maximum power.

    I also see this as closely aligned, intellectually, with the concept of the Maximum Entropy Production Principle, as discussed by Martyushev ( http://arxiv-web3.library.cornell.edu/abs/1311.2068 ) and many other places on the web.

    I, personally, also believe that it can be used to explain why the modern global economy has evolved over time to be such an exceedingly wasteful engine of ecological destruction, consuming mass and energy at ever higher rates, until we reach a maximal rate of consumption. Unfortunately for us, the Earth’s resources are limited, and our consumption rate is now largely supported by extraction of immense quantities of non-renewable energy resources. Charles Hall’s concept of EROI, and the rapidly declining value of this indicator for all modern fossil fuel resources, tells us that the end is coming too soon. This can only end badly for us. I believe it is absolutely critical that we come to understand this phenomenon much better, and understand its implications for how we live and organize ourselves.

  • Similar ideas have been floating around for decades, but it is hard to get this stuff published in physics journals. I’m glad to see Rod Swenson mentioned, and Arto Annila at University of Finland has done much work in this area as well. I am pleased that others such as Karo Michaelian are familiar with the development of this area and have made their own contributions.

    I have used this idea since 2001 for modelling history and economics, using the name “Principle of Fast Entropy” or “e th Law of Thermodynamics” since it drives exponential growth. One way to word the e th law is that “an isolated system will tend to maximize its rate of entropy production.”

    Nevertheless, I prefer alternative wording: “an isolated system will tend to maximize its achievement of thermodynamic potential”. (People hate entropy but love achievement and potential).

  • This is really interesting. Once this is researched more, I wonder how it could be applied to cell behavior…specifically related to tumor growth, etc. If cell behavior can be linked to resonance, there could be some exciting new fields of medicine open up?! Or am I totally mis-understanding the implications of this?

  • The theory indicates that life is more likely to form? In this case would life which exists on earth now have been enriched by multiple starting points? I guess life being depleted by competing starting points is as likely as life being enriched.

    Is there a way to determine life starting points? Is there any indication that there have been multiple starting points. I am guessing that no one ever checked because we all believed that life is a unique occurrence.

  • Interesting and wonderful article. Fun thought: Are stars living things? They are an assortment of atoms that have assembled themselves (low entropy) by the force of gravity and use that force to disperse/convert nuclear energy into its surroundings (higher entropy) with light and heat. They reproduce themselves- ejection of planetary nebula seeds and induces further star formation.

  • I see Rod Swenson has been mentioned, I would like to point out that there is a group at the University of Connecticut following up on his work, closely related to England’s. They call their project “Physical Intelligence” and for a short time were funded by DARPA before DARPA became convinced the goals of PI were too lofty.

    In 2012 they published their perspective over a couple of special issues in the journal Ecological Psychology:
    http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/heco20/24/1
    Special Issue: On Intelligence from First Principles I: Dissipative Structures, Impredicativity, and Intentional Dynamics
    http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/heco20/24/3
    Special Issue: On Intelligence from First Principles II: Information Perspectives, Formalizing Autocatakinetics, Physical Pattern Formation, and Plant Perception-Action

    I think this is a good entry point into these theories, since this group contains psychologists in addition to physicists (and others), so some of their writings are perhaps a bit more accessible than those in a more purely physical traditional.

    In any case, I am excited to see the same insights happening elsewhere, and I hope to see more collaboration in the future between these various groups.

    Disclaimer: I am a Ph.D. student in Ecological Psychology at UConn, however I don’t work on the Physical Intelligence project myself.

  • In my opinion, life was brought to our planet. Meteor or other method. At this point its a guess.

  • This sounds really similar to an idea I read in a book: _Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization_ by Adrian Bejan which ultimately came down to flow dynamics, too. So I agree, the idea is not really new. But we all stand on the shoulders of giants, right?

    I do applaud Dr. England for being true to the scientific enterprise and giving us a testable hypothesis. At a minimum, it’s an intriguing conceptual framework. At least at the chemical level where proto-life merges into life. I am still struggling to see how this would really apply for large-scale (meaning multicellular) organisms.

    I don’t think I can agree that a self-replicating configuration of atoms like a plant should be better at dissipating energy than a random compilation of the same atoms. Isn’t the whole idea of photosynthesis that plants use solar energy to build carbon-based molecules to _store_ energy? I would think plant life will retard the dissipation of energy over longer time frames than an inert grouping of similar mass which will simply reflect or radiate the energy away. But again, that’s the great thing about this kind of work; we can actually test it!

  • - I don’t think we have, as yet, evolved the intellectual brainpower to understand the origin of life. It’s like trying to explain differential equations to a frog. There is something that, as humans, we cannot yet see.

  • http://www.helsinki.fi/~aannila/arto/
    Professor of biophysics Arto Annila (Univ. of Helsinki) has developed a partly similar evolution theory as Dr England. Both are based on Prigogine and second law of thermodynamics. Annila has however discovered an universal formula wich contains the principle of least action (de Maupertuis) too ( Proc.R.Soc. A (2008) 464, 3055-3070).

  • Since all “living” things are physical, the fact that they follow laws of thermodynamics is not surprising. All physical things should, whether they are alive or not. This does not explain the evolution of “life”, which is not even defined here. I am a neurosurgeon having studied biology and living things for decades, yet have never found a satisfactory definition of “life.” One of the questions raised above asks if stars are alive. By biological criteria, no, because they are not made of cells and all living things are typically defined to be made of cells. By that definition, viruses are not alive also, because they are not made of cells. They just cause changes in living things. Before we talk about the evolution or origin of life scientifically, it would be best to define what we mean by “life.”

  • Wonderful discussion!

    @Jim Douthit: in the complex electro-chemical activity of the human brain, matter reaches such a degree of complexity that it escapes being determined or predictable.

    It’d be great if the transition to self-consciousness could be more quantifiably related to the “2ed Law.” This inter-disciplinary forum would be a perfect “ideation factory” to accomplish this.

  • This theory begins with a major presupposition. The theory begins :

    “You start with a random clump of atoms…”

    You’re presupposing the existence of the atoms which have no reason to be presupposed. How did the atoms come into existence out of nothing in the first place to create life?

  • I’m so glad the connections got made between Mr. England’s work and Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics (NET).

    I’ve read Into the Cool: Energy flow, thermodynamics, and life by Schneider and Sagan – which was a wonderful introduction to the subject. These others papers are also good

    Kay, J. J., & Schneider, E. D. (1994). Embracing complexity: The challenge of the ecosystem approach. Alternatives, 20(3), 32-39.

    Schneider, E. D., & Kay, J. J. (1994). Life as a manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics. Mathematical and Computer Modelling, 19(6-8), 25-48. doi:10.1016/0895-7177(94)90188-0

    But personally I found Supply Side Sustainability by Allen, Tainter and Hoekstra far more compelling – since it worked through NET not only in the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, ecology) but into the social sciences too (history, sociology, economics) and then into management.

    I have short summary of this book (and the key paper) some may be interested in here: http://www.slideshare.net/AntonyUpward/supply-side-sustainability-summaryupward-av102

    Allen, T. F. H. (2003). In Hoekstra T. W., Tainter J. A. (Eds.), Supply-side sustainability. New York City, New York, U.S.A.: Columbia University Press.

    Allen, T. F. H., Tainter, J. A., & Hoekstra, T. W. (1999). Supply-side sustainability. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 16(5), 403.

  • But I have a question for the community: who is continuing the work on Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics (NET)? Who are the current leaders in the this field?

    For example Dr. Brian Cox appears to align with in Mr. England in his excellent recent BBC Series the Wonders of Live, but is all this work now dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of NET – or is their still yet fundamental work to confirm of falsify? Who is doing this important work?

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